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N. Korea Willing to Halt Nuclear Tests If U.S. Agrees to Meet; Tillerson: Vietnam Draft Affected Decision to Take Job; Republicans Openly Balk at Trump Tariff Proposal; Ex-Trump Aide Said He'll Defy Mueller, Then Backtracks. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 6, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: -- dime and nickel that they have to go towards making these nuclear dreams possible.

And so, it is -- to me, I mean, David is certainly the expert, but just having witnessed this and covered this for 20 years, it is very hard to imagine that he is going to say, OK, I'll come to the table and I'll give up my nuclear ambitions first.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Normally in the past he's come to the table and before he'll even get into serious consideration, he says, I want. Whether it's food aid, whether it's other aid, whether it's relaxing of sanctions.

So how does the administration play this? We don't have an ambassador to South Korea at the moment. I assume this is Rex Tillerson's portfolio, he's the secretary of state, although this is an unpredictable administration.

How do they play it into David's point about, OK, if you're sincere, we'll come to the table, but here's how we're going to lay this out so we're not at the table six months from now trading water.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: In some respects, we have to wait for the president on this. And perhaps this afternoon when he has a press conference he'll be asked about this or will address this. But we've not heard much from him as we've heard from the vice president.

He's been all over the map on this in terms of what his administration should do. What his secretary of state should do. He rapped him on the hand last August, I believe, for even suggesting there should be a conversation.

So, I don't think we know. We have two brand new leaders, if you will, at this, and I think it's very unpredictable. But it is one of the examples if the president and administration wanted to focus on something substantive, this would be a fine area to do so as opposed to some of the extraneous things he spends time on.

KING: That's a valid point that Jeff just made though in the sense that -- I don't mean to interrupt but when Secretary Tillerson was in China, you know, the president tweeted out, "Rex, don't negotiate, negotiations are not the way, don't do it."

The president tweeted today for the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made. He could have decided to pull the rug out from under the South Korean president who wants this tax to go forward, who at least wants to get the policy check.

The president could have decided right at the outset, no way, I'm not getting caught in this trap and pulled the rug out. Instead, a very responsible cautious, but let's give (INAUDIBLE) with the message of that tweet.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Yes. But also, I think it's important to note with that tweet, it's a very muted response, and he's talking about possible progress. And he is noting it could be false hope. So the little we heard from the president so far has been very cautious.

BASH: But he didn't call him rocket man.

LUCEY: True. He did not say rocket man or little rocket man.

DAVID SANGER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: And he didn't say what he said to Rex Tillerson which is, there's only one way to go deal with these folks. It does raise the interesting question, do you let Rex Tillerson who has no history of conducting international negotiations on a diplomatic scale. Obviously, he does run this negotiation.

The person who knew the most about dealing with North Korea suddenly retired last Friday. OK. So he doesn't have an ambassador, as he talked about.

So, the Korea core has sort of been hollowed out of the State Department, and it's the State Department that normally would get engaged in doing this.

KING: That's a big question. And to the point about can we trust, those who remember the history are very skeptical, and you should be very skeptical. Everyone should be very skeptical.

However, the president looks at least going to try this one here. Listen, this is earlier on Capitol Hill. Remember Dan Coats, the intelligence director of national intelligence up on Capitol Hill, Tom Cotton, a Republican hawk in the Senate, frames it this way.


SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: It's another thing to bribe that adversary to sit down and talk with us.


COTTON: So we shouldn't play Charlie Brown to their Lucy once again on that football.

COATS: There has been a football, and there have been a lot of misses.


BASH: You know, I mean, the part of the vice president's statement that he just put out, all options are on the table, which is diplomatic code for, we're not afraid to use military action. I think that is a very real difference here than what we've seen in the past couple of decades and past administrations, Republican and Democrat.

Jim Sciutto and I did a story late last week about the fact that there is real conversations about military action, because the feeling among many in the administration is that it is better to have a conventional war than to risk a nuclear North Korea where they can proliferate all over the globe.

And that's extremely real, and they have some support from people like Tom Cotton on Capitol Hill.

SANGER: If you can maintain that to be a conventional war that doesn't escalate. The big difference that Kim Jong-un has, and you heard a little bit of this from John Kirby earlier, was when Bill Clinton was negotiating with them, they hadn't tested a nuclear weapon. They barely had nuclear weapons when George Bush was in office. There wasn't much that went on in the Obama administration.

President Trump is facing a North Korea that has tested weapons six times. Has got a missile that clearly just about has the ability to reach the United States, so he is just this close. And so he may have the ability at this point to stand down for a while because he's only a few tests away.

KING: Well, that's a fascinating question. We'll keep track of this and see what comes next.

Up next, some other political news. The Nashville mayor steps down after pleading guilty to felony theft charges.


[12:39:27] KING: Time now to check some of the other stories on the political radar today.

We're waiting to find out who Mississippi's Republican governor will pick to fill a suddenly vacant senate seat in his state.

Eighty-year-old Thad Cochran announcing yesterday, he's stepping down April 1st citing health issues. Whoever the governor appoints to take the seat, and it could be the governor himself would still have to run in November. Meaning both Mississippi Senate seats will be up for grabs this year.

The Nashville mayor Megan Barry resigned this year and pleading guilty to felony theft charges stemming from a two-year affair she had with her chief of security. She's agreed to serv. Three-year probation and reimburse the city $11 million related to that illicit relationship. [12:40:03] During a news conference, Barry acknowledged the stain she inflicted on Nashville and thanked its residents for their patience and resilience.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just told a remarkable story about why he decided to accept his current role in the Trump administration. After a speech at George Mason University, Tillerson took questions from students and faculty. He was asked why he left a big job at ExxonMobil to become the country's most senior diplomat. He said because he always wanted to serve but his number never came up during the Vietnam draft lottery. Listen.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: (INAUDIBLE) my freshman year of college, and they year came and went and my number was 89, they got to 86. My father is a veteran, World War II, fought the war in the Pacific. My uncle is a retired major in the army, did three tours of duty in Vietnam.

And as I reflected on things, at that point I said, you know, I haven't really done anything yet. It's my time to serve.


KING: Always good to hear people talk about their life, their history, their reasons for public service. Should the secretary of state be saying that when his boss sometimes gets criticized? The "Cadet Bone Spurs" is a favorite nickname by one Democratic senator who's an Iraq war veteran, has pinned down the president who got five deferments for bone spurs.

BASH: And correct me if I'm wrong but you don't have to wait to be drafted. Obviously, there is no draft right now. He could have enlisted if he really wanted to go.

Having said that, it's noble that somebody who is a gazillionaire -- I think that's actually how much money he has, gazillion dollars, decides to quit that and come into public service.

It's power, it's interesting, it's history, it's all of those things. But to hear him talk about that, especially to students and give us a little bit more insight about why he's doing what he's doing, is noteworthy.

KING: Just to hear him talk (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: Well, and to hear him utter any word is noteworthy for sure.

LUCEY: And perhaps suggests why he is staying in the job that's become increasingly challenging for him. And you talked earlier about the president at times undermining his role and perhaps this is part of the psychology of why he's there.

KING: That's an important point. The Rexit buzz has died down. ZELENY: I mean, there -- reports of his demise has, you know, been highly exaggerated for months and months and he's still here. And some people who are friends with him believe he'll stay here for a long time and that might be the reason why.

KING: All right, we'll see.

Up next, the president might be on prowl for a trade war. Without the Republicans, sure aren't.

Will the president water down those trade tariffs he promised, he promised to announce this week?


[12:46:45] KING: Welcome back to new wrinkles in the trade fight now, and this question.

Will the president choose to be Tom Petty or Supertrump? Follow along.

Hardliners are predicting the president won't back down. And will stick with the promise to issue broad new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum? But there's a big Republican revolt.

The House Speaker Paul Ryan leading the effort to get the president to think again and to give a little bit.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: What we're encouraging the administration to do is to focus on what is clearly a legitimate problem and to be more surgical in its approach so we can go after the true abusers without creating any kind of untenable circumstances or collateral damage.


KING: Now keep an eye on the White House schedule. The plan was to put the new tariff plan in writing and announce it this week. But now because of the battle over the details which are, of course, important, there is talk it could slip until next week.

Where is this one going? You have a Republican speaker, he was gentle today. He was gentle today, but the Republican House speaker standing their publicly saying, let's be smart.

You can connect the dots to what he's saying the president's plan is.

SANGER: He said the words "smart approach" several times. Look, the reality here is, the president rushed to announce this last week, even though he has been talking about it quietly, but he announced it without the details here.

So now this is a very ugly discussion being happening. It should be happening in closed doors. It's happening in public. I can't remember a thing that has agitated and irritated and worried so many Republicans more than this. The timing is in part because of a special election a week from today in Pennsylvania, so the president will be doing a rally in the Pittsburgh area on Saturday, wants to have it done before then.

I am told by someone at the White House that it almost certainly not to be done this week, the details simply aren't ready. The question is, are the people inside going to be able to prevail on the president to exempt Mexico or Canada and trim this back?

We don't know the answer to that. This is a fascinating in realtime discussion of what the president is thinking.

KING: It's an example of the president getting way out ahead of where his staff is ready to do. They don't have anything on writing and he's announcing a policy that not only affects the American economy but impacts the world.

BASH: Right, and look, this is to me one of the most fascinating moments and examples of the realignment in the Trump world. Because this is Donald Trump following up on a very, very big campaign promise, one that really did help him win, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan. Helped him get the union members, the people who are registered Democrats who are fed up with their party.

And it was specifically during speeches -- he gave one on June 28 in 2016 in Pennsylvania explicitly saying he was going to do exactly what he did now, using his executive power, Section 232 which suddenly has become something that people are talking about, to help manufacturers of steel and aluminum. And this was a very big question for all those voters, whether or not he was going to follow through.

Now, we don't know exactly how far in he's going to go, but he was also tweak the alliance for American manufacturing, has been working on this in a big way and they had ads running on cable network that he likes to watch in the morning specifically to remind him who brought in the dance.

KING: And so, this is -- it's a fascinating question economically at the moment. And politically for the future of the Republican Party which has always been the free trade globalist and Trump is the America's president in more ways and one.

[12:50:07] Now, we're focusing on trade issues. There's a little variety Republicans from different parts of the country saying, now, Mr. President, you are wrong.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: It's obviously bad policy, we all think, but we can disagree on that with the president. He thinks it's good policy. But the politics for it are awful for Republicans.

REP. JEB HENSARLING (R), TEXAS: The president has got to be very, very careful here. My fear is the president is going to walk back a lot of the progress that he's made, and I don't see winners in trade wars.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: This is going to have a direct impact on my district. It will impede growth of the rates cost for consumers. It will not be in our nation's interest. There will be retaliation.


KING: Every administration has internal fights about big policy, questions. But one of the stunning things and repeated things about this administration is, there are people you could call at the White House right now who will tell you the president is going to stick where he is, there's not going to be exemptions. It's going to be broad tariffs. You can call the guy who sits across the hall who would say, this may not happen at all, or if it does happen, we're going to get the president to water down and do this, that and this. Huh?

LUCEY: I think what you're seeing right now is those different factions actively lobbying him.

KING: How do they suppose to figure that out before the president makes an announcement?

LUCEY: But the president makes an announcement before some cameras when he feels like it. I mean, this president also is quiet comfortable having these types of conversations in a public way and he seems to enjoy it. And we've seen this on other types of (INAUDIBLE).

ZELENY: And even though we talked about this on the campaign trail, the real effects though may be different out in a red state America with the Iowa farmer, the Wisconsin, a manufacturer.

I am told that people who believe this is a bad idea are giving the president clips and some information about what actual Republican and supporters of his are saying, so he hears both sides of the debate.

So this is something that -- I don't know how this is going to end, but I would say it's the most fascinating policy debate and refreshingly so inside this administration.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: And to your earlier point, John, I think he's going to be Tom Petty on this. I don't think he's going to back down in a way that, you know -- you know, he's going to make -- he's going to put a policy out there that to which he can say he did not back down, that he delivered on a campaign promise, because this is a very important one.

It's notable to me that Speaker Ryan and other Republicans are using kind of positive reinforcement, being gentle with him saying, I totally understand what you're trying to do, you're going after the abusers and there is real abuse of China.

The ironic thing about this is it doesn't go after the real abuser, it doesn't go after China. It primarily goes after Canada which is the number one exporter of steel and aluminum to the United States. So there is the issue of going after the countries, potentially country exemptions, potential product exemptions for the products that are being treated fairly.

There's a lot the president can do to kind of unwind some of the unintended consequences and potential damage that could be done as a result of this. But it's hard for me to imagine that he's going to abandon ship.

LUCEY: And it could get tied up with NAFTA.

KING: Yes, we'll see what (INAUDIBLE). That's a negotiation that's already off the rails. We'll see if they can get (INAUDIBLE).

Up next, after all that, Sam Nunberg says he's going to cooperate.


[12:56:58] KING: Welcome back.

Sadly, the former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg was a no-show for a scheduled morning interview here on CNN. Perhaps a sign of some adult intervention.

His stream of consciousness therapy session with the media yesterday was beyond bizarre, chock full of contradictions and some playground posturing.


SAM NUNBERG, TRUMP'S FORMER CAMPAIGN ADVISER: They want me over at the grand jury. Screw that! Why do I have to go? Why? For what?

Do you think I should cooperate? Should I spend 80 hours going over my e-mails, Jake?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If it were me, I would.

NUNBEG: I'm not going to sent to prison. Am I going to get sent to prison? They know something on me, Jake, and I don't know what it is. Perhaps I'm wrong, but he did something. Granted, Donald Trump caused it because he's an idiot.

Muller thinks that Trump is the Manchurian candidate.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He thinks he's -- I'm sorry, he thinks what?

NUNBERG: He thinks Trump is the Manchurian candidate. And I would tell you I disagree with that.


KING: And to get that on the record, he disagrees with that. It is hard to keep track of all the flips from "screw the special counsel" to, "I will cooperate with the special counsel." Nunberg talked to CNN today, not on television, he talked to us and he says the wheel has stopped for now anyway and cooperate. The big question of course, does Nunberg know anything of value?

KAPUL: I think we saw Sam Nunberg go through the five stages of grief on national T.V. and ultimately arrive at acceptance which is (INAUDIBLE). But, you're not going to say no to the special counsel. So the impact of that means he'll probably going to hand over thousands of e-mails and other communications to Trump officials, perhaps most interestingly, Roger Stone.

BASH: Yes. We're not going to know the answer to that until the end of the Mueller investigation, but it's pretty clear he has abandoned the "screw that" and he's going to go for it.

I just -- the idea that we have characters like this that are actual people who worked on the campaign, any campaign, it's still stunning to me.

KING: And I want to sneak in, one more. Listen, one more little piece of his conversation with Jake Tapper that could be very important.


TAPPER: President Trump said he knew nothing about the meeting. Do you think that that's true?


TAPPER: You don't think that's true?

NUNBERG: No. And Jake, I've watched your news reports. You know it's not true. He talked about this a week before.


KING: We're talking about the infamous June 20, 2016 Trump Tower meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. with Russians who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Sam Nunberg is saying the president knew about it. The White House has said, no, he didn't.

ZELENY: Of course as if he knows what he's talking about directly or just, you know, thinking about. He was fired about nine months before that meeting, so I think that's something to keep in perspective here.

He was fired at the fall of 2015. But he was still in conversation with people, that's why they want to see his e-mails.

LUCEY: That's right. I mean, it's not fair if he's just speculating. Some of these comments, he appears to be saying, I believe this. Whether he actually knows it personally or not. But yes, there is a lot more I think he has to go over with the special counsel.

KING: It could be important. It could be a man who's in another orbit that none of us quite understand. But I know the White House yesterday was watching this goes like, what does this guy mean?

We shall see, Friday. He says he's going to cooperate.

Thanks for joining us on the INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow. Have a great day.

Wolf Blitzer starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington, 9 p.m. in Moscow, 2:30 a.m. Wednesday --